Every Studio Ghibli Film, Ranked


My kids love Ghibli, but not every Ghibli film is suitable for kids. As pre-screenings evolved into a month-long binge of every film in the studio’s catalogue, I committed to ranking them. I mean hey, who doesn’t love a big dumb list? But let’s be real up front. These are the works of two of the all-time greatest masters of animated story-telling and their closest collaborators. Room for armchair criticism runs dry pretty early into the charts. I just want to share some films I’ve been passionate about lately, and ranking them is a fun way to go about it.

22. Ocean Waves (Tomomi Mochizuki, 1993)
Times watched: 1

Ocean Waves was never intended to be a masterpiece. This made-for-tv anime was a training project for younger staff in the studio, and a lot of reviews I see give it a positive nudge for accomplishing anything at all in this context. I’m not going to pretend to like it. The animation itself is decent enough for a straight-shooting high school romance, but the plot hedges on downright unpleasant. Rikako Muto, the only character with a distinct and memorable personality, is a devious narcissist bent on exploiting anyone who offers her a helping hand. Of course she has a tragic past that justifies it all. Of course she just needs a strong man and her issues will wash away. Of course our generic protagonist Taku sees her inner beauty and falls ever deeper in love the more she treats him like crap. Of course they chance into each other at a train station at the end and Taku embraces his hormones as we fade to credits, our lead characters now destined to live their probably really crappy lives together. It’s dull, cliche, and foregoes any sort of meaningful progression on Rikako and Taku’s rocky, manipulative bond in favor of a half-hearted happy ending.

21. Tales from Earthsea (Goro Miyazaki, 2006)
Times watched: 1

Tales from Earthsea is so universally panned that I feel like I’m beating a dead horse to point any of it out, but in brief, the plot is an incoherent mess that necessitates awareness of the novel series its based on to get the slightest grip of what’s going on. The dialogue is comically trite. The characters are hollow facades of Hayao’s visions, with Hare in particular feeling like a chaotic evil caricature of Nausicaä‘s endearing antagonist Kurotowa. The story telling is devoid of vision, jumping around in a haphazard rush to cram in sequences that seem pre-determined, like Goro sat down thinking from the outset that these 100 things have to happen and just crammed them all together without evolution. Yeah, Tales from Earthsea is bad, but unless this is the first write-up you’ve read, you probably knew that.

So let’s talk a little about what it does right. The music! Tamiya Terashima’s score is solid, lending a lush and imaginative soundscape to a world in desperate need of spirit. Some of the landscapes are very tastefully drawn, with Hort Town in particular presenting a number of striking backdrops. While the only villain type Goro seems to grasp is one-dimensional chaotic evil, Cob presents as a legitimately creepy lead antagonist. And lastly, there’s an interesting story to be told outside of the movie itself. Hayao was strongly opposed to allowing his son Goro to direct this film. He knew Goro wasn’t ready, wanted him to start with smaller projects and gain more experience. His concerns were thoroughly legitimized, but Earthsea was not Goro’s final effort. There’s a tale of redemption to it all; the son of a master biting off more than he can chew, failing hard but rebounding to create something entirely decent in its wake.

20. Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)
Times watched: 2

Arrietty is a film based on The Borrowers, telling the story of little people living secretly in the walls and how one came to befriend a human ‘bean’. Arrietty’s travels through the house and garden from a mouse-sized perspective are imaginative and compelling both visually and musically. It’s got an awful lot of potential.

Unfortunately, the story telling and character development just aren’t there. Sho is a self-loathing dolt I think I’m supposed to feel bad for but just end up despising, and the emotional rejuvenation he experiences by way of befriending Arrietty feels forced and cliche. Haru might be the worst antagonist in the entire Ghibli catalogue, inconsistently projected as a caring if harsh caretaker, an imbecile injected for comic relief, and a downright sadistic villain. Spiller’s presentation as a stereotypical cave man, pronoun deficiency and all, might serve a purpose in the book–I haven’t read it–but feels completely random and pointless in its film setting. Ultimately Arrietty is a fun, adventurous movie for kids with a pleasant atmosphere, but it tumbles into an abyss at the threshold of the character realism I expect from a Ghibli film.

19. When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014)
Times watched: 1

When Marnie Was There takes a notable leap from the bottom three, with a carefully crafted protagonist who feels entirely human cast into a world that’s legitimately mysterious. Anna is unlikable for all the right reasons, and sympathy was developed in me gradually and naturally, not forced down my throat like with the equally unpleasant Rikako of Ocean Waves. Marnie has this air of a pre-school siren, innocent in motive but certainly not considerate of Anna’s safety either, and Anna is finely tailored to feel believable as she abandons herself into Marnie’s world. I knew it was going to have a happy ending, but that never fully resolved the twitch in the back of my head that this could turn into a horror film very quickly. And while the plot twist is ultimately predictable, it was sufficiently creative to leave me satisfied.

I’m not sure the story couldn’t have been conveyed better visually. The characters are presented more through color than detail, leaving a glossy feel that didn’t resonate quite so harmoniously with the broader ambience as the lush palettes of say, Arrietty or Ponyo. A grittier look and feel may have done this one well, but at #19 we’re already into movies I enjoyed.

18. From Up on Poppy Hill (Goro Miyazaki, 2011)
Times watched: 1

Or Goro’s redemption, if that’s how you care to think about it. From Up on Poppy Hill is a light comedy that never tries too hard but accomplishes everything it aims for. It felt at risk of the same one-dimensionality as Earthsea at first, but I stopped caring about that when the characters proved to be enjoyable for their simplicity. Umi and Shun’s embodiment of the ultimate made-for-each-other extrovert protagonist couple ends up driving a lot of the humor, and in that sense Goro really flipped one of his major weaknesses in Earthsea on its head and used it to his advantage. It also offers a snappy seaside soundtrack that suits the mood of the movie beautifully. Satoshi Takebe did an outstanding job here; maybe the most well-placed Ghibli score not composed by Joe Hisaishi.

17. My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata, 1999)
Times watched: 1

My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of light comedy sketches about daily family life reminiscent of classic American sitcoms. The kids fight, mom is lazy, dad comes home drunk, grandma complains about everything. There’s no unfamiliar territory here. But the most central theme throughout is that they all sincerely love each other, and that’s portrayed without ever being forced. For a ‘movie’ that rarely goes ten minutes without a hard break to the next episode, there’s a persistent warmth to it. The most stereotypical gags never feel superficial. Takahata understands people, and I can really pick up on that here. Unfortunately from a ranking standpoint, it barely qualifies as a film and could have just as easily been released for tv as a season of episodes. The minimalistic animation is appropriate but hard to compare in a studio famous for its stunning artwork. It’s an easy one to rank low, but My Neighbors the Yamadas is grand in its humility.

16. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002)
Times watched: 3+

This was the hardest movie to rank for me, personally. The Cat Returns is hands down, without question, the most poorly animated film in the Studio Ghibli library. It’s not a remotely introspective or thought-provoking film, either. But wow, what a weird, Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure. My 5 year old son’s favorite Ghibli movie, The Cat Returns is an outwardly innocent romp through a secret world of anthropomorphic felines. The plot is pretty simple from a kid’s perspective. The human protagonist Haru gets stuck in cat land, the bad cats try to keep her there, and the good cats help her escape. Basic.

But there are so many dark undertones to this film. The Cat King is an inbred nutjob who makes his court humiliate themselves for his entertainment and will execute on a whim. His servant Natoru is ever smiling and humbly debasing himself while carrying out the king’s dirty work, pulling creepy stunts like trying to get a character to eat himself to death. The anthropomorphism is twisted; the cats are still cats to the fullest, and they walk about on two legs with all the stagger and imbalance that a real cat might. The entire cat kingdom is warped and unnatural, and it’s all presented with such superficial innocence that I feel completely at ease letting my kids watch it. It’s a real trip and I strongly recommend it. The animation quality is just so poor and the plot so basic that it’s hard for me to juxtapose this to a Takahata or Miyazaki work and call it ‘better’ with a straight face. In terms of raw enjoyment, you’ve got to check this one out.

15. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
Times watched: 3+

The most controversial placement on my list was necessarily going to be whichever Hayao film I ranked lowest. Well, here you have it. Kiki’s Delivery Service is a great movie, no doubt about it. But looking back over the collection of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, I just find it to have the least distinguishing character. That is, everything I like about this movie–and I like it quite a lot–I feel like he’s done better since in one form or another. If I really want to get at the root of why this one comes in last though, I think it’s this:

Miyazaki and Takahata are masters of character realism. Of all the things that make Studio Ghibli films so compelling, I think character portrayal carries the day. To take a world as bizarre and foreign as Princess Mononoko and make the characters feel so utterly human… That’s the glue that holds so many other amazing talents on the table here together. Some of these films are focused on deep, complicated subjects. Others are innocent, kid-friendly worlds. Kiki’s Delivery Service is very much a kid’s movie, and her coming of age tale is cast in pure innocence. But she’s going it alone and independently, with a capacity for self-confidence that just doesn’t resonate well as our world spirals back into a dark age that may have felt behind us in the 1980s. Even Hisaishi’s soundtrack has an air of carefree independence about it that’s harder for me to embrace than most of their collaborations. It’s a tale for more confident times. I read a quote by Miyazaki himself along these lines when I was digging for alternative opinions on this film, and I thought “that’s it.”

14. Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
Times watched: 2

Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa, has a lot of historical value in the evolution of anime, but I’m not enough of a buff to put weight into that. It’s ambitious in a way I think only a younger Miyazaki could be, attempting to fit every expected element of a high fantasy steampunk action film into one package. Towards that end, he does a hell of a job. Laputa is absolutely a classic, but it feels like one. It’s almost like this is the film where he thoroughly proved himself as a master of the traditional and freed himself to delve into his pure artistic sensibilities without any further pressure to create some pre-defined thing.

I have to say, the Dola gang is up there with Calcifer and Donald Curtis for Miyazaki’s most endearing comic relief, but I think on the whole this movie strives too hard to be great at everything to fully perfect any one thing. Colonel Muska in particular is Miyazaki’s most shallow antagonist–and arguably the last time he ever attempted to employ a pure unconditional bad guy. The climax is weak for its binary portrayal of good and evil. And–no fault of Miyazaki–I think Disney gave it a really low effort dub job compared to the top notch voice acting of his other works. Still a fabulous film that I recommend. Everything is relative.

13. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
Times watched: 3+

The only Miyazaki film that leaves me conflicted, Howl’s Moving Castle is visually stunning, beautifully animated, highly imaginative, and offers two of the most enjoyable secondary characters of the Ghibli universe in Calcifer and the Witch of the Waste. The world it’s set to is disordered and ill-defined, and knowing that Miyazaki was aware of this and chose to roll with it anyway doesn’t resolve the fact that half the time I really have no clue what’s going on. Howl himself is a hot mess, and Sophie falling for him is a hard sell from a director famous for character development.

Howl’s Moving Castle is filled with compelling scenes and some of Miyazaki’s best animation ever. The way the castle moves and breathes is just fascinating to behold. I’ll never get tired of watching the sequences. Yet out of Miyazaki’s 10 major works, this one leaves me with the least sense of a clear vision. I enjoy it in the moment, but I don’t carry it with me days and weeks later the way I do with many of his other works.

12. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Times watched: 1

The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s final film pending the potential completion of How Do You Live?, and it’s definitely his most subdued. A two hour slow roll through the fictionalized life of Japanese World War II aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi, action is mostly limited to a few dream sequences. The movie gets off to an incredibly strong start. The airplanes of Jiro’s childhood dreams, not restricted by physics, are an imaginative thrill. Miyakazi makes great use of sentient sound effects to bring the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake to life. Scene after scene he finds ways to imbue motion into a movie that is ultimately about a guy sitting in front of a desk all day.

But by the mid point, The Wind Rises starts to lose some of its charm for me. The narrative is lost for a moment as the passage of time becomes unclear. Is this failed test flight another dream or an actual event? Have we advanced a day or two years since the last scene? It’s not the sort of transition where the vagueness reflects some internal point; it just seems like a brief lapse in focus. When things come together for me again, Jiro is pursuing a family, and the remainder of the film is told mostly in small rooms and conversations: things that certainly can be portrayed through animation, but don’t facilitate an advantage over live acting; stories that have been told before. Somewhere down the line, the Miyazaki magic was lost to me. Not a flaw per say, just a bit of unfulfilled potential. I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

11. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)
Times watched: 1

This one’s hard. I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. A lot of people say that about Grave of the Fireflies, but for me Takahata’s most difficult film is his final one, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. This is the story of a simple girl living a simple life and loving it with all the innocent fascination of a child until her parents, given the opportunity, force her to pursue a jaded adult’s perception of a ‘better life’. What follows is two hours of superficially well-intended child abuse, as her father, indulging his self-serving vision of a perfect life for her, strips away everything she holds dear. It’s heartbreaking and highly relatable despite being set in a classic Japanese world far removed from modern life, and Takahata takes intriguing liberties with the animation to portray Kaguya’s emotions through varying degrees of visual refinement.

As the film nears its end, it’s hard for me to escape the desire for her to just murder her father and run away forever, but she stays faithful to the end. There’s no forced commentary on whether her obedience is a virtue. It just leaves me to think, rather unpleasantly but not without purpose. At 137 minutes with no action and the narrative fully defined within the first half hour, it does drag, and drag, and drag some more. I could argue that even that plays a meaningful role in casting the viewer into Kaguya’s world. It’s the sort of movie I’ll never find a true fault with because it’s not intended to be pleasant. But I have to draw a line somewhere on the roster between evocative power and evoking emotions I actually want to feel. Don’t be a jerk to your kids. Moving on.

10. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
Times watched: 1

Pom Poko is very serious drama about magical anthropomorphic raccoon testicles. Ok well, raccoon dog testicles. Raccoon dogs are an Asian species most closely related to foxes, but they look like a cross between… you guessed it. Talk about a cultural barrier; the MPAA must have had a field day figuring out how to rate this one. It ultimately got a PG for “thematic elements”. Heh heh.

Anyway, Pom Poko. What a film. Magic raccoon balls actually have a place in Japanese folklore–Takahata didn’t just make this up–but it’s thoroughly self-aware of its outlandishness. Pom Poko is an adult cartoon in the truest sense, with characters reminiscent of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animations facing very real starvation and extermination from human encroachment. Slapstick comedy really shouldn’t be able to deliver a socially conscious message, but Takahata finds a way. For better or worse, I’m not going to find another movie like this one. Not in Studio Ghibli. Not anywhere. I loved it.

9. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Times watched: 3+

My Neighbor Totoro was Studio Ghibli’s first children’s film, and while it’s not half as famous as Spirited Away in the west, you’ll probably recognize the eponymous character. The heartwarming tale of two girls recruiting a forest spirit to help their mother recover from illness stands apart from Miyazaki’s other works in being thoroughly grounded, literally. It’s his only work that lacks a persistent theme of air or water. That might sound trivial, but it gives the movie a really unique texture to me. Something in its landlocked landscape vis a vis the rest of his works makes the world feel smaller, warmer. Independently of that and Joe Hisaishi’s arguably finest score, I’m not sure the movie would do terribly much for me. Satsuki and Mei are adorable, Tatsuo and Granny are endearing, but Miyazaki continued to improve on his character development for decades beyond this film. There are side characters in Spirited Away that develop more personality than Totoro or Catbus in five minutes of screen time. Even the soot spirits, novel for their day, find much more refined character in their second appearance. It’s an early work, and that’s evident. I’m not bound to it for sentimental reasons the way longer-term fans may be.

But the music and setting fit so snugly around it that I can’t help but feel completely at ease every time I put this one on. If you want to talk about a holistic vision, Miyazaki absolutely had one walking into this film and captured it to his fullest potential at the time. The end result is a film that, despite feeling less refined in plot and character development than his later works, emits a constant warmth beyond the scale of any given scene.

8. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
Times watched: 2

Kondo’s only director role at Ghibli before his untimely death is one of my favorites. What a beautiful film. Despite the box art, Whisper of the Heart is set in reality. ‘High school romance’ is about the most generic description you can slap on an anime, and it’s not out of place here, but this one is just so endearing and true to itself. At 35, I’m pretty far removed from any age of self-discovery, and I didn’t exactly grow up in a world anything like Shizuku’s, but the film makes it so easy to slip into Shizuku’s life and go through the experience with her. It’s not just her, but the whole supporting cast. Sugimura’s rejection and the way he reacts to her through the rest of the film, the subtle expressions and gestures between the characters, there’s so much attention to detail in bringing all of their emotions to life. When Shizuku’s singing and Nishi and his friends come down the stairs… I don’t know, one of my childhood friends had a musical family, and there wasn’t a romantic factor but I can absolutely relate to that completely non-judgmental, beautiful emergence of sound out of one person picking up an instrument and letting their spirit take them. Maybe it’s not as direct for everybody, but this film evoked so many memories of my childhood in spite of its foreign setting that I have to imagine anyone can find an intimate connection somewhere in it.

7. Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)
Times watched: 2

Something about swine noir, gets to me every time. Well, Porco Rosso is an entirely kid-friendly movie on the surface, complete with an anthropomorphic pig protagonist, and in a lot of ways it’s more conforming to expectations for a kid’s movie than most. Marco is a stereotype anti-hero, the enemies are more like lovable hoodlums than legitimate villains, and even the main antagonist Curtis is among the most likeable characters in Miyazaki’s universe. It’s charming for all of that, and the final showdown between Marco and Curtis is absolutely delightful, but there’s a lot of depth to Porco Rosso beyond its cartoony face. Marco’s playful vigilante policing of the Adriatic serves as the backdrop for exploring his less admirable past as a World War I fighter. There’s a lot of death behind the scenes that a kid wouldn’t readily pick up on. Secret police are hunting him down for desertion. His entire transformation in an otherwise human world is never explained beyond the simple quip that war turns men into pigs. Porco Rosso feels simple and straight-forward relative to Miyazaki’s other works, but it meets me half way whatever level I want to engage it on.

6. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
Times watched: 1

Before Takahata was exploring the intricacies of how to animate raccoon dog scrotums, he was directing one of Studio Ghibli’s most grounded works. Only Yesterday is the story of a woman in her late 20s reflecting on her inner city childhood during a vacation to her aunt’s farm. That’s it. Nothing magic, nothing tragic, just a straight-forward character portrayal set to the real modern world. The heroine is homely. Her childhood is normal. The choice she is faced with in the end, if life-changing, is hardly extraordinary. It’s just a two hour display of humanity with no frills attached.

Takahata’s mastery for depicting people as they are stands strong through all of his films, but it might be the boldest here. There’s simply nothing else in play. The entire movie is propped up by and dependent on the portrayal of Taeko as a piece of non-fiction. Its broader simplicity allows Takahata the room to focus in on the complexity of the basic human experience, with all its intricate interwoven emotions. Taeko comes to life in an identifiable and immersive way that stuck with me for days. Only Yesterday keeps sneaking further up my list the longer I dwell on it. It’s beautiful, and I definitely intend to watch it again.

The soundtrack also bizarrely features Muzsikás, a Hungarian folk ensemble that I’m pretty sure I featured when I was doing music write-ups for this site a decade ago. Small world eh?

5. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
Times watched: 2

This is… a difficult call, and a lot of people would argue for Princess Mononoke as #1. It definitely left me with a lot to process, so much so that it’s probably the Ghibli movie I thought about the most after watching it. Miyazaki’s distinct way of animating fluid motion hits some surreal high points in this film. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the demon boar’s flesh withering away. So many other-worldly images etched into my mind. San’s mask. The forest spirit’s face. It’s a visually unprecedented film. It’s also Miyazaki’s most adult film, in the sense that it’s grim and tragic from start to finish.

So why only #5? Maybe that bleakness. Just like it took a lot of introspection to not tank The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Princess Mononoke had to grow on me. It didn’t exactly leave the best taste in my mouth. It takes some stewing around to discover that it’s not meant to; to find value in that negative experience. Ashitaka is a strong lead but hardly relatable. San’s desire to kill resonates stronger, and there’s no clear resolution that she or Eboshi or anyone else wins out in the end. There are no winners. That’s part of the point. I mean, the most likeable character in the film to me was Jigo, and he’s the closest thing to a true antagonist Miyazaki’s introduced since Dola’s generic role in Laputa. It leaves a lot to chew on. Perhaps it deserves a higher placement for that, but again, appreciation and enjoyment only coalesce so far. I certainly do love the film.

4. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Times watched: 2

Despite that Nausicaä predates Laputa and pursues a similar style, I feel like there’s no comparison. This movie is absolutely wild and offers better character development to boot. Nausicaä‘s world is entirely Miyazaki’s creation, the film being based on his own manga. The insect forests are surreal on a level I didn’t see again until Princess Mononoko. Nausicaä and Ashitaka are very similar characters, but Nausicaä’s given a lot more room to develop through interactions with friends and family where Ashitaka stagnates in isolation. The village legend is vague enough to manifest without feeling forced. The giant warriors fill the same role as the robots in Laputa but with all the amorphous mystique of Mononoko‘s night walker. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack is out of this world, and the abrupt audio transitions throughout the film are jarring in a positive way. The English dubbing dodges all of Laputa‘s shortcomings, with Patrick Stewart really stealing the show.

Yeah, video quality looks like it was ripped from a VCR tape, but I can live with that. I love the emotional range this movie projects. Nausicaä has a tangible bond to the people in her village. The insects are at once bestial and more empathetic than many of the humans fighting them. Kurotowa might not be developed to the same extent as Jigo, but he effectively doubles as light comic relief and a human face to an invading army in need of one. The way they lure the ohms is downright disturbing. Nausicaä’s Biblical sacrifice and the giant warrior’s inglorious end… One thing that really stands out to me looking back now is how everything in the film is the catalyst for its own destruction. The Tolmekian capital is destroyed by Tolmekians. Kushana pushes her ambition to ruin. The ohms’ fury leads to suicide. Nausicaä’s own fate. One of Miyazaki’s major reoccurring themes is that there are no winners in war. Nausicaä does an interesting job of portraying that.

3. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Times watched: 1

I’m not sure what to say about Grave of the Fireflies. Takahata’s strength is in portraying people as they are. This is a movie about World War II orphans. You get the picture. It’s more watchable for me than Princess Kaguya. From a step back, part of that is definitely rooted in the differing animation styles, the differing lengths, the more modern setting, the differing levels of action. This film is more engageable on its face. But one thing Seita and Setsuko have that Kaguya lacks is each other. Their tragedies are quite different. I can’t imagine much resistance if I said Seita and Setsuko’s tragedy is fundamentally worse. But they have each other. I think everyone should watch a couple films like this. Maybe the world would be a better place if we did. Love your kids. Moving on.

2. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)
Times watched: 3+

Ponyo is a fantastic movie for kids, but I think it was made about them just as much as it was made for them. I see it trend low in a lot of lists like this, often quoting that two five year olds just don’t make for complex and compelling characters. I guess it depends on what you want out of the movie. Is Miyazaki creating a magical world for kids, or is he showing us, the adults, what a kid’s magical world looks like?

The supernatural mystery is appealing on its face. Fujimoto’s bizarre, unexplained duty to shoot colored lights at passing fish in the intro; the bubble windows of his sanctuary that hint at some rule for safe passage but never resolve on a consistent pattern; the well of life exploding into a stream of millions of half-formed sea creatures. It’s visually presented as no other animator can, and Hisaishi’s score is brilliant. The “Ponyo’s fish wave” sequence is just amazing to me–the way the music is choreographed for big booming percussion as the waves crash down onto the road; the way they phase back and forth between lifeless water and living creatures while Ponyo leaps back and forth. There’s a lot to enjoy here without digging deep, at least in the first half.

But the film gets more interesting to me when I look at how Miyazaki transforms the way Sosuke might experience life through a child’s eyes into the actual reality surrounding Lisa. Of course a kid’s going to think a simple fish can understand him, and sure enough, Ponyo comes to life. A tsunami sweeping away the village is thrilling with no awareness of the danger, and when it calms we see that everything is perfectly intact under water. Sosuke expresses no fear in the car. They’re going home. Home will be safe. So the raging sea comes to a halt at his doorstep. A fish trapped in a bottle, mom leaving for a few hours, those are the tangible sources of dread in Sosuke’s life. Rescuing Ponyo and finding Lisa then manifest as the two central plot directions of the film.

I see my children in Ponyo and Sosuke. I see a bit of myself in Lisa. (And I can’t help but think Koichi is meant to represent Miyazaki himself.) The uncompromising, innocent bond they share; the way Lisa dotes on Sosuke unconditionally while arguing with her husband; the way Lisa copes with her own bewilderment by setting the kids down, expressing herself on their level, and turning her focus onto caring for them–“Alright. Sosuke, Ponyo, life is mysterious and amazing, but we have work to do now.” It just resonates so authentically. On that note, I can’t speak for the Japanese original, but Tina Fey’s voice acting is outstanding throughout the film. The lack of action in the second half of the movie doesn’t bother me because by then I’m already so emotionally invested in the characters. Ponyo paints the big, fascinating mystery of a child’s small, isolated world directly, but the film is just as easily viewed through the eyes of the adults around them. It’s my daughter’s favorite movie, and I think it’s the single happiest thing I’ve ever watched.

1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Times watched: 3+

Where do I even begin with Spirited Away? It’s rare for ten seconds of this film to pass without some new bewildering oddity of Miyazaki’s imagination rearing its head. The bath house emits a glowing warmth that tethers the supernatural to a sense of comfort. The constant flowing water everywhere makes the world itself a reflection of the strange creatures within it. For me it’s not just about great characters, great music, a driving plot, an imaginative setting. I love how Miyazaki ties it all together with such careful attention to the surrounding ambience. I don’t think people will need much convincing to check out a film regarded as one of the greatest ever made, and there are so many brilliant components in play that no one of them makes or breaks it, but if I had to put my finger on one thing that stands out to me uniquely, it’s that constant motif of water and the bath house as a refuge from the amorphous, half-submerged world beyond. Is the bath house a safe space? Yes. No. Spirited Away doesn’t lend itself to simple black and white answers. Miyazaki poured too much life into it for that.

And there you have it. Great stuff. In summary, after mulling it over I wound up at:

1. Spirited Away
2. Ponyo
3. Grave of the Fireflies
4. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
5. Princess Mononoke
6. Only Yesterday
7. Porco Rosso
8. Whisper of the Heart
9. My Neighbor Totoro
10. Pom Poko
11. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
12. The Wind Rises
13. Howl’s Moving Castle
14. Castle in the Sky
15. Kiki’s Delivery Service
16. The Cat Returns
17. My Neighbors the Yamadas
18. From Up on Poppy Hill
19. When Marnie was There
20. Arrietty
21. Tales from Earthsea
22. Ocean Waves

Hope you enjoyed. Cheers.

My Top 20 Albums of 2019


Yep, I survived into 2020.  Yep, I still listen to ear-splitting heavy metal.  Long time no see; let’s get on with the show.  I’m kicking around the idea of doing a decade top 20 after this, but if I don’t get to it, see you all next January.  😉

20. Russian Circles – Blood Year

post-metal

Sample track: Kohokia

Nothing new here; Russian Circles are doing what they’ve been doing for years. You can expect a long slow grind through a classic post-metal soundscape that occasionally latches onto a memorable melody but more often than not just sets a mood. Nothing I’ll remember a year from now, but it earned a dozen spins and that’s enough for an honorable mention.

19. Krallice – Wolf

progressive death/black metal

Sample track: Time Rendered Omni

Krallice have nailed more 10+ minute masterpieces than anyone else I can think of, but this 15 minute 5-track EP was surprisingly hard to process. There’s no coherent flow to speak of. It meanders along through a bunch of brief loops tethered together with barely coherent noodling. I enjoyed the chaos of it all quite a bit, and I’m curious what it could entail for the next full-length album. It’s just a bit too short to rise to the top of my charts.

18. Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen

post-black metal

Sample track: Nebeleste

Blut Aus Nord have a huge spectrum of sounds, and one of the great things about a new release is you can never be sure of what you’re getting until you’ve heard it out. Hallucinogen is neither as boldly experimental as the 777 trilogy nor as pleasantly atmospheric as Saturnian Poetry, and the band seems to have reserved their more experimental tendencies for a later entry in my list. Hallucinogen is very much an even-keel easy listening experience, and I think its greatest mark of distinction in their discography is an appeal to rock and roll. A lot of these songs have some pretty groovy licks and bump along moments that I never saw coming. The post-rock influence is heavy here too. Eh, it didn’t have very much time to grow on me yet, and the tunes aren’t as immediately catchy as they appear to try to be, but I’m sold. It’s a solid effort.

17. Boris – LφVE & EVΦL

drone/doom/post-rock

Sample track: EVΦL

This album was a weird experience for a Boris fan. They went close to two decades releasing multiple substantial works every year and then just kind of fell off the map after Dear in 2017. Two years isn’t a terribly long wait for most bands, but it felt like an eternity given their precedent. Boris isn’t a band you’re supposed to go into with expectations. They can release a rock album and ambient drone side by side like it’s normal. You just know if the release of the moment doesn’t do much for you there’ll be something new to chew on in a few months. But the time built hype and expectations anyway. I was expecting something broad-ranging like Noise or Smile. They delivered Dear 2.0. The post-rock ballad EVΦL is an outstanding tune, and at 16 minutes it takes up a substantial chunk of the album, but it’s not enough to compel me to shamelessly hype this into my top 10. Not this go around. I listened to the album a hell of a lot and enjoyed its aesthetic as a background piece. They’re definitely still doing great things. I just couldn’t get into it enough for the probably excessively high ranking I’ve given them so many times in the past.

On that note, they just released a new album a week ago, vinyl only and limited to 800 copies. The lone sample on youtube is an extremely promising pop tune and I’m kind of irritated that they aren’t putting this up on Bandcamp for easy purchase, but I’m going to hunt down a copy sooner or later. They might earn a top spot in 2019 for me yet, just not in time for a year-end list.

16. Dead to a Dying World – Elegy

post-black metal

Sample track: Empty Hands, Hollow Hymn

Outside of the band’s kind of awkward name, this is a solid effort. They tackle the marriage of black metal and post-rock about as directly as it gets, and by 2019 I can’t say it brings anything new to the table. Still, the melancholy strings persistent throughout give it a lush and longing feel that strikes a mood relatively few bands are indulging in these days, and I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. Maybe it makes me want to dust off some old Panopticon or Waldgeflüster more than it directly captivates me, but I enjoyed it.

15. Misþyrming – Algleymi

black metal

Sample track: Með svipur á lofti

This should probably be a lot higher than I’m actually placing it. I loved Söngvar elds og óreiðu and would have ranked it really high in 2015 if I’d discovered it in time. I came in to Algleymi expecting the same instant appeal and had to work for it a bit more. Their sound isn’t a novelty to me anymore. I have to actually pay attention to the songs to grasp their originality. When I do focus, they consistently deliver. They push such a big bold sound and still keep it catchy. But black metal is a meaty genre that baits passive listening, and I never gave this the full undistracted 46 minutes it deserves. I anticipate continuing to spin this a fair bit into 2020 and reaping the reward.

14. Nuvolascura – Nuvolascura

screamo

Sample track: Death as a Crown

Maybe I just haven’t been looking, but it feels like ages since I’ve heard a really compelling screamo album. That label definitely feels closest to home here, at any rate. I don’t know that I’d pigeon them down to one genre. The album has a lot of math rock appeal, loaded with guitar and drum noodling that feels a cut above what your typical carve open my chest and lay it all out emo assault can offer. There’s a technical appeal here that sacrifices nothing on the execution end so central to the genre.

13. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling

black metal

Sample track: Warmth Trance Reversal

I love what these guys do, I loved seeing them live last year, and I think Rare Field Ceiling captures all of that without hedging much from their established comfort zone. They chill out in a sphere that’s rooted enough in classic bm to satisfy purist inclinations while still harnessing the inspiration of a genre that’s been defined of late by progression. Vibrant and memorable driving melodies have become their selling point now more than ever, I think. It’s an easy listen with great replay value despite its density.

12. Yerûšelem – The Sublime

industrial metal

Sample track: Triiiunity

It’s not particularly clear to me why this album was not released as a Blut Aus Nord title, because it’s literally just Blut Aus Nord and sounds unmistakably like them despite being their deepest indulgence into the industrial side of their sound. It’s 36 minutes of heavy, demented grooves that will grip your attention whether you really want them to or not. Blut Aus Nord have been playing with this sound off and on for a while now, and I think this is the farthest they’ve pushed it. Not an easy listen, but an intriguing one.

11. Tool – Fear Inoculum

progressive rock

Sample track: Fear Inoculum

For a few weeks after this launched, I thought it might win my album of the year. The title track is goddamn beautiful and sets a stage that appears to promise 80 minutes of broody, subtle, trance-like bliss. Subtle is probably the biggest key word going into this. Tool are masters of it, and through Fear Inoculum and Pneuma every note is delivered with a precision of dynamics that summons tremendous intensity into its slow, calmly-delivered shell. Somewhere in Invincible I start to lose touch. There aren’t as many sustained bass tones to carry it. Maynard’s lyrics are more prominent and direct. I start to remember that I’m listening to a band. The aptly named Descending is a great mid-point track with a transitional feel about it, shipping a darker vibe than the opening tunes and capitalizing on minimalism to bring about a petty groovy solo in the end that lets Tool indulge their rock sensibilities without breaking stride from the ambient vibes. Unfortunately it leads into Culling Voices, which feels pretty dull and uninspired to me, amplifying the disconnect I began to feel on Invincible. Mesmerizing celestial frequencies give way to noticeable structure and noticeable effort, culminating with the tryhard experimental Chocolate Chip Trip which, for all its oddball uniqueness in a vacuum, jarringly displaces the album from the easy-engagement feel-good vibes of its first 22 minutes. The closing track 7empest regains a lot of ground for me, but I ultimately walk away with the sense of a band trying too hard to still identify with some semblance of a rock sound that their talents left behind somewhere in the midst of Ænima.

This album really shouldn’t be 80 minutes long, and I’m saying that as a guy whose favorite song is 70-something. It’s unfortunate, because the first 22 are absolutely incredible and the remainder is peppered with outstanding moments. The collective is really hard to place on a list for me. I haven’t even made it to the end half of the times I’ve queued it up, but it contains some of my favorite songs of the year.

10. Kentaro Sato & Budapest Symphony Orchestra – Symphonic Tale: The Rune of Beginning

orchestral score

Sample track: Prologue

I tend to think of Konami as the quintessential example of corporate greed and ineptness crushing talent in the gaming industry. Suikoden brought together a brilliant team of developers and drove them off a cliff, establishing a vast cult following that virtually guaranteed small market profit and then canning it in favor of the trillionth Castlevania spin-off. Suikoden hasn’t seen a franchise title since 2006 and has zero prospects for a new sequel despite the demand. I don’t know how Kentaro Sato even managed to nab the rights to produce this album. But from the outset, Symphonic Tale had zero prospects of gaining the attention to turn a profit. It’s purely a labor of love from Sato and the fans who contributed to funding it, and what a fantastic job he did. Hearing the original Suikoden II soundtrack brought to life with the full orchestral grandeur of a professionally produced modern score has to be my favorite musical highlight of 2019. It’s kind of amazing how Sato not only indulged my nostalgia hard on the finest tunes but also brought forgettable ones into vibrant life. I’m so happy this exists, and I think Sato really poured his heart into it. Fantastic stuff.

9. Cosmin TRG – Hope This Finds You Well

ambient noise

Sample track: Paradigm Shift ASAP

“Ambient noise” isn’t really something that should be capable of competing in a top 10, but I really fell in love with this album and it’s become a bedtime staple for me to just let go and drift away to. It’s loaded with vaporwave aesthetic points. Down-tuned, drawn out celestial synth and machine-like oscillation drift through an urban landscape that’s so fogged over with minimalism that you aren’t even fading out to it. You’re just opening your mind for a barely conscious second and drifting back into the void of sleep.

8. Deathspell Omega – The Furnaces of Palingenesia

progressive black metal

Sample track: The Fires of Frustration

Deathspell’s been regarded as cutting edge for as long as they’ve existed, but this most recent run with Synarchy of Molten Bones and Furnaces of Palingenesia is doing it best for me. The production keeps getting better, and I feel like they’ve reached a peek where they can ship the relentless onslaught of their song-crafting without any of the not necessarily unintended but still distracting bombast of the delivery. The drumming has settled into a complementary role where it used to overpower everything. The thickness of the distortion has leveled out. I think they’ve really mastered how to mix an album that can deliver on their raw mastery, and Fires of Frustration is the consequence.

7. Drudkh – A Few Lines in Archaic Ukrainian

black metal

Sample track: Autumn in Sepia

Feels kind of odd, kind of nostalgic to be putting Drudkh in a year end list. It’s not that I thought they took a dive or anything, I just started to lose interest somewhere around A Handful of Stars, now a decade old. It felt like black metal was continuing to forge forward and they were lingering behind in the dust of the movement they’d helped to initiate. They weren’t bringing anything new to the table. And I don’t know, maybe they still aren’t, but when I gave this album the obligatory once over, something just stuck with me. I didn’t just nod my head and go “Yep Drudkh still sound like Drudkh.” It felt… maybe fresh isn’t the word, but more intimately gripping than I’d grown accustomed to. Maybe it was better song writing or maybe it was just me, but something in the melancholy melodies delivered through that classic bm grind got to me in a way they hadn’t since Blood in Our Wells back in 2006. I don’t have much to say about this album content-wise, I just really liked it, and I hope you do too.

6. Mono – Nowhere Now Here

post-rock

Sample track: Meet Us Where the Night Ends

A good 15 years removed from the height of the post-rock scene, Mono are still producing the exact same sound they helped pioneer it with. Far from sounding stale for it, they just keep on proving why this genre was such a big deal in the first place. Mono have put out a lot of albums that I haven’t honestly paid much attention to since One More Step and You Die first blew me away back in 2003. I was busy sampling the younger bands who copied them, seeking out the next big thing, and eventually the trends of music drifted elsewhere. I can’t say whether Nowhere Now Here is the best thing they’ve released in ages, but damn is it good. They always knew how to rock out. Its the improvements to the slow rolls leading you there that sell this hard for me. The album has this really sweet and calming vibe about it. I walk away feeling like I’ve listened to something soft, pretty, subdued. I’m lulled by its mellow dreamscape into forgetting the ubiquitous post-rock explosions that will always define this band, and they catch me off guard every time. It’s a gift that’s kept on giving all year long, and I think I’m really appreciating Mono more today than I ever have.

5. Mechina – Telesterion

symphonic death metal

Sample track: The Allodynia Lance

Flash back to 2013, Mechina’s Empyrean launched into my #6 slot with a compelling and original sound that merged all the grandeur of an epic, power metal-rooted high fantasy sound with technical death metal in a sci-fi landscape long primed for this approach. It was the long-awaited heir to a vision Fear Factory’s Obsolete had barely scratched the surface on. The production was dubious at best, sometimes downright hard to listen to, with the drums tastelessly blaring over everything. I was just delighted by what they were doing and the raw songcrafting skill they were demonstrating in the process. But with 2014’s Xenon not really distinguishing itself further for me on limited spins, they dropped off my radar until I went to recommend an Empyrean track last month and found the mix just too unbearable to share. I bought their newest release on impulse hoping for progression, and wow, talk about exceeding my expectations. Not only have they left their studio shortcomings far behind, but this album is absolutely loaded with top notch orchestral accompaniments way above the level they were delivering at five years ago. This album has gone heavily unnoticed while establishing itself for me as the scifi equivalent of Equilibrium’s Sagas. In a weaker year with a few more months to spin, it could have easily nabbed a 1st place for me. Check it out.

4. Lingua Ignota – Caligula

dark operatic minimalist something

Sample track: Butcher of the World

Pretty hard to slap a label on Kristin Hayter’s sound. It’s a morbid, classical-infused dirge of minimalist noise that shows more than a hint of appreciation for the darker recesses of metal. Kristin airs the chip on her shoulder with a dramatic passion, gunning down a very human target with apocalyptic declarations of merciless vengeance. The lyrics are relentlessly brutal. The compositions masterfully exploit silence to build tension. Kristin’s professionally-trained vocals hard sell the image of a broken, hateful spirit in a way most singers don’t have the talent to pull off even if they possessed the vision. It’s an innovative, original work of art that can pretty well speak for itself. I doubt this will be an easy listen for anyone not accustomed to bouts of heavy distortion and screaming, but if you appreciate music as an artform, you really owe it a spin.

3. Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings

atmospheric folk metal

Sample track: Morrígan

This was definitely my most hyped album of the year. I’d heard Tanner had something in the works and kept poking my nose around all year to pre-order it. They’re my 11th most-played band of all time by the numbers, and I didn’t even know they existed until Aria of Vernal Tombs blew me away in 2015. That album and Suspended in the Brume of Eos have had hundreds of plays to grow on me and still don’t feel old, so it was probably wishful thinking to expect The Palms of Sorrowed Kings to rise to their pedestal in the roughly one month I’ve had to indulge in it. Third place for now and destined to grow. I’ve taken to describing this sound as the spirit of Summoning infused into a vastly refined spin on Opeth’s Orchid. If that means nothing to you, maybe think of it as one of those nature-inspired spiritual Celtic folk recordings occasionally misplaced into a “new age/easy listening” bin, except granted all the breadth and life that modern metal tones can offer. Tanner Anderson landed on one of the most beautiful sounds to ever grace my ears and has ridden it to perfection for three albums. Can’t wait to finally see them live this August. Perhaps I’m robbing the album inevitably destined to outlast anything else released this year on my playlists, but there were two other 2019 releases that just gripped me more in the moment.

2. Liturgy – H.A.Q.Q.

post-black metal

Sample track: HAJJ

Another year, another opportunity to rob the obvious best option for the #1 slot. This album solidifies Liturgy’s throne as the most innovative band making metal today, and I don’t have the energy to venture a description more specific than that right now. Once again I’m reminded of what Radiohead might sound like in some bizarre alternative universe where tremolo and blast beats are cool. H.A.Q.Q. lacks the gleefully defiant attitude of its profoundly underrated predecessor The Ark Work, and most people will be quite thankful for that. The package is more dense and refined. Hunter is screaming again. There are probably more notes in the first track than in half of The Ark Work combined. H.A.Q.Q. brings Liturgy back to the thick volume of a fundamentally black metal album, and you’re too busy trying to keep up to stop, breathe, and try to parse what the hell is happening. Somehow I think this makes it more accessible. The Ark Work still stands as my favorite Liturgy album, and a top 10 all time contender in general, but it will be well into next year before I’ve fully digested this late release. It blew me away on first listen, and 30 spins in I still feel like there’s a vast world of imaginative experimentation to discover.

1. Horsehunter – Horsehunter

sludge/doom metal

Sample track: Nuclear Rapture

“Liars! Set your face on fire!” At least I think that’s what he’s screaming at the start of this album, and it’s metal as fuck so let’s roll with it. Horsehunter is the most uncompromisingly metal album I have heard in ages, and ten months removed from its release I am still maxing out my car speakers to this one every chance I get to drive somewhere without kids in the back. The bass tones are offensively thick but still feel completely raw. The solos catch a filthy, captivating groove executed with a blues aesthetic that holds up to the greatest legends of heavy metal. Every time Michael Harutyunyan opens his mouth he’s shouting something so over-the-top ridiculous that I just want to wind down my window and flash devil horns at random strangers on the street corner while banging my head into my dashboard. I never thought when I heard this back in March that it would hold up to my first impression, but here we are. This is the definition of turning it up to 11, and it will likely be years before I hear anything this goddamn metal again. It had to trump a lot of top-tier frontier-paving releases to reach the #1 spot, but as we are pleasantly reminded in the closing line of the grand finale, SUFFOCATE! THE PLAGUE WILL WIN!

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018

 

My Top 15 Albums of 2017


Hi! Still existing and loving my family, hope the same goes for all of you. I may be retired from all else in the music world, but the year end list is eternal.

Sample size: I have 83 albums released in 2017 at the time of writing this. Can’t promise I actually listened to all of them.

Surgeon General’s Warning: Ranking music is silly and I generally discourage it.  (But I do it once a year anyway…….)

15. Chinese Man – Shikantaza

trip hop/hip hop

Sample track: Liar

fun French hip hop/trip hop album that seems to have gotten overlooked a lot. I listened to it a ton earlier this year. It’s not something I’ll remember years down the road, but it certainly earned a spot for as much as I played it.


14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

stoner prog

Sample track: Sanctuary

For me personally, this is probably the most unorthodox pick on my list, because it is heavily rock-centric in all the ways that typically turn me off. God but something about rock and roll has always felt absolutely soulless to me in a way that few genres can match at their worst. But Elder just do what they do so damn well that it’s impossible to hate this opus. An endless onslaught of prog ingenuity with a nice stoner rock crunch that keeps it driving from start to finish. It’s 64 straight minutes of ear candy without a dull note in the mix, and I have a world of respect for how flawlessly these guys accomplished what they set out to do.


13. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

post-black metal

Sample track: This Forest For Which We Have Killed

Krallice are responsible for a lot of the best music to come out this decade, and in 2017 they pumped out two new ones (both painfully late into the year for a band that requires a lot of repetition to fully appreciate). While I haven’t actually read anything about either of these yet, the distinctly different styles between them have me pretty convinced that Mick Barr wrote the bulk of this one and Colin Marston took charge on the other. Go Be Forgotten gets off to a glorious start with its opening track, but the remainder has so far failed to really captivate me to the extent that most of their previous works did. It doesn’t raise the bar (or if it does, it hasn’t sunk in yet), but it’s still a fascinating exploration of highly complex soundscapes that few other artists have the technical precision to delve. And god that opening riff is sick. Krallice will be a perpetual year end contender as long they keep doing what they do.


12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

folk rock

Sample track: When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay

I have mixed feelings about this album, and my inclination is to point out the negative; suffice to say, it’s not lacking in universal praise. It wouldn’t be on my list if I didn’t love it. The reason it’s not higher is that, as I see it, Tillman too often defaults to rather throw-away lines. That’s not inherently problematic (see: my #1 pick), but I think it clashes with the more refined, theatrical vibe of the sound around them. Simple case in point: Total Entertainment Forever kicks off with an absolutely delicious line–Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift–and follows it up with something so generic that I feel it only exists to achieve a rhyme–after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes. Sometimes gentle flaws make a work all the more endearing, but Pure Comedy goes too big and refined to get away with it for me. I feel like he aimed extraordinarily high and almost got there.


11. Tchornobog – Tchornobog

blackened death metal

Sample track: II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)

A landscape album as only blackened death metal can paint one. Tchornobog takes you on a 64 minute journey across an entirely unpleasant and stomach-turning waste of all purpose ugliness that really reflected how I’ve felt about the world this year any time I let my attention range beyond my immediate household. We’re talking death metal aesthetics here so yes, that can be a compliment. And while the visions are certainly exotic, there’s not much surrealism of the lofty, artistic sort you find on say, a Blut Aus Nord album. It’s just leaves you feeling kind of dirty. It hit a note I could appreciate while maintaining enough melody and progression to avoid succumbing to redundancy.


10. Hell – Hell

doom sludge

Sample track: Machitikos

Ridiculously heavy slow-rolled sludge that shouldn’t require any genre appreciation to crush your skull. At its peek on “Machitikos”, the quality of this album is unreal. Unfortunately I was pretty late to the ballgame, and their more ambient moments are going to take more than a sporadic month to leave a lasting impression or definitively fail to. Nowhere to move but further up the charts for this one.


9. Nokturnal Mortum – Істина

pagan metal

Sample track: Дика Вира

We’ve certainly come a long way from Knjaz Varggoth screaming hateful nonsense to crackling cassette recordings of Dollar General synth, and as endearing as Nokturnal Mortum’s early works may be, you can’t deny that he has matured (both musically and intellectually) substantially over the years. This album thoroughly lacks the trademark Eastern European folk metal execution that Knjaz inspired more than perhaps anyone else: brutally hammered folk jingles lashing out violently from beneath a wall of modern noise. Істина is a lot more even keel, to such an extent that its metal elements almost feel unnecessary at times. It fully embraces the more cerebral, orchestral sound we began to hear on Weltanschauung and leaves most else behind, achieving a new height in terms of orchestration. I do miss Knjaz’s more passionate explosions, but I don’t consider that a flaw. The real down side to the album for me stems from the studio. For all of its grand instrumental diversity, the complete package is a bit washed out. Everything feels like it’s playing in the background as a supporting element to a non-existent centerpiece. It’s something I’m certainly used to–Nokturnal Mortum have always struggled a bit on the finer finishing touches of sound production–but it’s still a fault that’s hard to ignore. An incredibly solid album that could have been even better.


8. Riivaus – Lyoden Taudein Ja Kirouksin

black metal

Sample track: Vihan Temppeli

This is probably the most unknown album on my list. It’s just straight-up black metal. No frills. No novelties. Really it’s the sort of thing I rarely listen to these days, because most great bm artists have moved on to more experimental fronts. But this is tight as fuck. The riffs are great and it’s got a nice punchy pace and a crisp tone that suits the mood perfectly. Outstanding debut from an unheard of artist. Hoping he sticks around for many years to come.


7. Thundercat – Drunk

funk/jazz

Sample track: Bus in These Streets

A tongue-in-cheek dreamfunk fantasy. Artists who can let a cheesy sound be cheesy often accidentally stumble into brilliance. This guy makes some of the goofiest sounds that funk and jazz have ever imagined somehow feel endearing. I’m also pretty impressed by how distinct his sound is. I mean, considering how radically uninformed on this sort of style I am, it kind of blew my mind that I could instantly go “this guy must have wrote the bass lines to Wesley’s Theory“. I think Drunk is an incredibly well-craft work masked behind a delicious veil of comedy. And it’s given us such eloquent 21st century mottos as “thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”


6. Krallice – Loüm

post-black metal

Sample track: Etemenanki

If Go Be Forgotten offered Krallice’s most deranged opening melody to date, Loüm might take the prize for their heaviest boot in the ass. Etemenanki hammers down all the brutality of a headbanger’s wet dream from the first note without budging an inch on Krallice’s classic eclectic tremolo noodling. I don’t think I’ve wanted to just open my mouth and shout “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” to a Krallice song this bad since Inhume. As with Go Be Forgotten, there’s a serious question of whether the album as a whole is really that great or if the opening song just carries it, and that’s not to knock the rest so much as to say that by Krallice’s ridiculously high standards I think it might have some mediocrity. You can never really tell with most Krallice songs until you’ve heard them four dozen times. It’s complicated, intricate shit that your brain doesn’t instinctively unravel. My gut tells me that Loüm will keep on growing on me in a way that Go Be Forgotten may struggle to, and I was right about that with Prelapsarian’s incredibly late release last year. (Yes, it is amazing.) The only lasting down point about Loüm for me is, surprisingly, the addition of Dave Edwardson (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) on vocals. He does a killer job, but I am shamelessly in love with Nick McMaster’s vox and can’t help but miss them.


5. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

folk

Sample track: Crow

Phil Elverum’s wife died last year, and he wrote this album. It’s artistically significant for reasons that are pointless to explain, because I think you will either already get it or it will fundamentally conflict with whatever life coping mechanism you personally subscribe to, and both are fine. It matters to me more than other albums about death because we appear to share roughly the same world view. It isn’t my favorite album of the year because it can’t be.


4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

post-rock

Sample track: Bosses Hang

I somehow managed to ignore the rebirth of GY!BE in spite of being entirely aware of it, and this is the first album I’ve listened to by them since Yanqui U.X.O. fifteen years ago. In the meantime, I’ve become an avid consumer of Silver Mt Zion, and after that long of a break it’s easy to forget just how different the two projects were. I’m at a loss for words to properly describe how I feel about Luciferian Towers because I have nothing remotely current and similar to compare it to. “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem For No State” are both absolutely mind blowing, and I usually skip the first and third tracks and don’t even care. This is the greatest band in post-rock being exactly that.


3. Kendrick Lamar – Damn

hip hop

Sample track: DNA

Every time I saw this album top another year-end list, I wanted to move it further down mine. It doesn’t move me on an emotional level like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not Kendrick’s greatest work. Can it really be the best of 2017? But every time I revised my year-end list, it just kept moving up instead. Everything he touches has a subtle finesse to it. I love the sound of his voice. I love the way he weaves it into the instrumentation flawlessly. I love how every aspect of each song seems painstakingly tailored to suit the intended vibe. I can just really get into this from start to finish time after time with zero effort. It was my 2017 fallback the grand bulk of the times I wasn’t in the mood for something dark or heavy. This album makes me feel empowered every time I put it on with no cheap sense of escapism attached, and god did I need something like that.


2. Boris – Dear

drone/doom/psych/post-rock

Sample track: Dystopia (Vanishing Point)

Wow. This is 16th year that I’ve compiled a year-end list. For the grand majority of that time, I would have named Boris in my top 5 favorite bands if you asked me. During that time, they’ve put out 53 releases just that I have managed to acquire. And not one has earned my #1 slot. Smile came so close. So close. And now I’m saying it again. I almost feel guilty leaving Dear at #2. It was never dropping any lower. But if you’re at all familiar with it, this might sound generous. Dear is nowhere near their most well-received album. It is absolutely nowhere near their most accessible. Doom and drone at its core, it’s a slow drip grind that will leave all but the most steadfast fans bored out of their minds on first encounter. Yet I somehow managed to listen to it close to 50 freaking times. It wasn’t that I liked it at first. I kind of didn’t. But the mood was right. It hit that sweet spot between ambience and melody that made it never quite dull enough to bore inherently but never quite memorable enough to bore through familiarity. It was dark but it wasn’t morbid. It was just the right sort of fuzz to make me feel more alert without distracting me. And it was through that extremely passive but relentless pattern of listening that its finest moments slowly revealed themselves to me, raising the bar higher and higher, until now it blows my mind that a track like Dystopia (Vanishing Point) could have failed to sweep me off my feet on first encounter. It certainly manages to every time now, on take number one hundred and god knows what. This isn’t my favorite Boris album, but I suspect it’s much higher up there for me than for most fans, and after a very great deal of consideration it only failed to take the title by a fraction of a hair. Oh, I also got to watch them play it live in its entirety. 😀


1. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood

Americana

Sample track: Lone Star

The grand prize goes to Sun Kil Moon. I think this might be for me what Pure Comedy has been for a lot of other people this year. It just speaks to so much I’ve been feeling in 2017 in a way I can completely relate to. Mark Kozelek takes half of the stuff I’ve been making enemies spouting all year and sets it to solid American folk music. He has a blue collar political perspective that offers no compromise for our “total fucking asshole” President but takes far more cutting hits at liberal America’s zero-attention-span reaction-click-and-move-on culture for allowing the country to fall into this state. The album is a two hours and ten minutes meandering disjointed travel through personal stories and monologues that reach all over the place, but underneath it all is a consistent love and appreciation for the bonds we share in our meager little lives, and an intense compassion for those who have permanently lost them. If he comes across as cranky, he’s just pissed at how many Americans have lost sight of this.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

My Top 10 Albums of 2016


*taps the mic*

This thing still work?

Hi! Yeah, I exist. It’s been a busy year.

For one thing, the lovely Ms. Phoebe Lucille was born on June 29th. 🙂

A two year old and a six month old do not make for many leisurely afternoons exploring new music, and besides that, my competing addictions to Forum Mafia and Overwatch have consumed virtually all of what little free time I have. Suffice to say, I’m not exactly well informed on music in 2016. In fact, I can’t name 10 metal albums that came out last year off the top of my head, so my traditional top metal list just isn’t going to happen.

But I’ve been posting some sort of year-end music list every year since 2002, and I’ll be damned if I let ignorance stop me. So here goes nothing:

10. Krallice – Prelapsarian

Prelapsarian was released on December 21st. I didn’t find out about its existence until quite recently, and like every Krallice albums, it’s going to take a good 30 listens to fully appreciate. But after a few early spins I can confidently say that it’s good, and because it’s Krallice, that probably means I’ll be kicking myself half a year from now for not giving it my #1 slot. My initial take-away is that the band has continued to pursue the more mathy/avant-garde approach they took on Ygg Huur in place of the progressive opuses of their first four albums, and while that might not make for the same degree of eternal replay value, they’re still the best in the business at what they do. I could argue that I liked the Hyperion EP released earlier this year more, but that’s hardly fair given the amount of time I’ve had to listen to Prelapsarian. I’m going to err on the side of reason here and say this album will be firmly cemented in my top 10 of 2016 a month from now.

9. Martröð – Transmutation of Wounds

Is it another cop out to include a 16 minute EP in my year end list? Maybe. Whatever the play time limits, Transmutation of Wounds takes me on a pretty diverse and chaotic ride. In a lot of ways it felt like a more complete work to me than many full length black metal albums I heard this year, because it’s always going somewhere. The destinations aren’t particularly inviting, but they’re consistently fascinating. A solid debut from a band that could really kill it if they put together a full length album.

8. Skáphe – Skáphe²

This one is a brilliantly discordant and meandering take on black metal. It borders on unlistenable for all the right reasons, and leaves me feeling a little sick to my stomach every time I give it a spin. I suppose that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it’s an artistic accomplishment that really very few bands out there can pull off. I mutually adore and abhor it. On an amusing note, I just realized as I was writing this that the line-up includes members of Misþyrming and Martröð. Misþyrming’s Söngvar elds og óreiðu would have easily made my 2015 list if I hadn’t only discovered it this past January, and I placed Martröð one slot up, so at least my tastes are consistent. <_<

7. Sumac – What One Becomes

I need to get off my ass and buy a physical copy of this album. Post-metal god Aaron Turner finally found a worthy follow-up to Isis when he joined forces in 2015 with Nick Yacyshyn and Brian Cook to create The Deal, a sludgy masterpiece that might be what Isis would have sounded like had they tied a brick to every guitar string. The Deal has been my go-to album for car rides for quite a while now, and it’s hard for me to compare its quality to What One Becomes because I’ve only ever listened to the latter at home. But I’ve heard it enough to know it’s excellent, and it’s only going to keep on growing on me in years to come.

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

I don’t suppose this needs much explanation. Half a year ago, I might have considered it for my top choice of the year. Sitting here right now, I can’t honest remember any of the songs besides “Burn the Witch” and the absolutely beautiful revision of “True Love Waits” without putting the album on to remind myself. That’s been the simple difference for me between post-Hail to the Thief Radiohead and all that came before. I love it when I’m experiencing it; I can’t really remember it a few weeks removed. But it’s more a testimony to Thom and company’s longevity that the music they released in 2016 still earns an easy placement in my top 10 of the year.

5. Run the Jewels – 3

This is where my list is going to start getting a little unconventional to people who’ve known me for a long time. I was really into Anticon back in the early 2000s (I gave Buck 65’s Secret House Against the World my #1 slot in 2005), but by and large hip hop has remained one of those genres I massively respected but never really got around to expansively engaging. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 hit me hard enough to affect a more lasting change in my listening habits. I listened to more hip hop than metal in 2016. So there’s the preface.

When I say I don’t know hip hop though, I mean it. El-P and Killer Mike were nothing to me but names I’d heard people mention a million times before I picked up this album. I can’t compare this to their past albums. I can’t speak from experience. I can’t even talk about its appeal over time, because this album just dropped on Christmas Eve. But it hit me for all the reasons I was digging Aesop Rock this time 15 years ago, and in a year when hip hop was my go-to genre it was the perfect album to close things out.

4. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

That was the easy part. Now it gets hard. The rest of these could go in any order. They’re so mutually different that I don’t really know where to begin in ranking them. So I’m going to do the stupid thing and put the album I’m most likely to love longest at the bottom of the pile.

Is this the most intelligent album of 2016? Probably. I don’t have to be well versed in a genre to recognize a piece of art when I see it. Atrocity Exhibition shows extreme attention to lyrical and musical detail in crafting its grim cautionary descent into drug abuse and street violence. Brown pulled together a collection of sounds that projected his vision in astoundingly visual ways. No one should ever realistically be able to rap to this, but he managed to lay his eccentric and expressive voice over top of it anyway. It’s one of those packages that takes extreme care to ensure that it’s barely holding itself together at any given moment. If I was strictly picking the “best” album of 2016, Brown would be my boy, but what good is a year end list if I can’t kick myself for how stupid my ordering was afterwards?

3. Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy of Molten Bones

Besides, metal has always hit closest to home for me. It’s the sound I find easiest to embrace, whatever its abrasiveness, and once again France has served as the source of its finest cuts. For better than a decade, friends whose tastes I trust have been praising Deathspell Omega, but I could never quite catch the hype. That changed this year. Far and away my favorite metal album of 2016, The Synarchy of Molten Bones is a complex and captivating black metal masterpiece that’s really perfectly mixed to bring out the robustness of their sound in a full and fleshy way. The song progression is delightfully abstract without ever teetering into the abyss of wankery. A lot of its success stands on their ability to remain relentlessly aggressive no matter how far they delve into experimentation. Too obscure for me to ever fully wrap my head around, I’ve put it on more than 50 times expecting the sort of bore that excessively abstract metal tends to convey on me, and every time I’m just immediately swept away, not fully cognizant of what my ears are hearing but thoroughly in love. These guys crafted an exceptional album on their own, but they owe their studio staff a lot of respect for delicious production too.

2. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

From here I’ve got to vote with my heart, and that begins with the 34 minute heartbreak that is 22, A Million. This album reminds me more of Lost in Translation than of any particular album. It’s packed with disjointed vignettes that don’t serve an apparent purpose towards progressing the album. They often start or end abruptly. It almost comes off as a compilation of half-finished works that got mashed together in an abbreviated 34 minute package with all the meat left behind, but I think it works well that way. Fleeting moments of digital indie folk that always manage to feel simultaneously depressed and comforting–the end result is something beautiful. I put my kids to sleep with it at night.

1. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

I’ve been trying my hardest to overplay this album for ten months now, but it just won’t grow old. I don’t know if past artists have incorporated gospel into hip hop to this extent or not, but if they’re half as effective at it, lead the way. I don’t have to share Chance’s religious beliefs to find this album entirely uplifting from start to finish. It beams positivity from end to end without any of the pop sunshine and flowers that turn me off to the vast majority of “happy” music. Chance is at his best when he’s passionately and arrogantly busting out religious lines (and he kills it just as hard on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”, whatever I think of the rest of that album). That’s the focus for the grand bulk of this work. It’s not perfect by a long shot. Where he diverts to more worldly themes, he’s often shallow and cliche. “All Night” for instance is really fun to jam along to but leaves me feeling more than modestly cheated on the lyrical front.

But I don’t really care. I fell in love with the spirituality of this album right from the get-go, and close to a year later it still brightens me up every time I put it on. It won’t go down among my top albums of all time, but it earned its place as my favorite of 2016.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015

Previous Entries In The Best of 2016:

  1. TFG’s 2016 Comics Year In Review : Top Tens, Worsts, And Everything In Between
  2. Anime of the Year: 2016
  3. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems I Saw In 2016
  4. 2016 in Review: The Best of SyFy
  5. 2016 in Review: The Best of Lifetime
  6. 2016 in Review: Lisa Picks the 16 Worst Films of 2016!

A special Christmas Eve sing-along with your friend, necromoonyeti!


Jingle bells!
Jingle bells!
Jingle all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh-Oh!
Jingle bells!
Jingle bells!
Jingle all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!

Dashing through the snow!
In a one-horse open sleigh!
O’er the fields we go!
Laughing all the way!
Bells on bobtail ring!
Making spirits bright!
What fun it is to ride and sing a Slayer song tonight!
Oh—Auschwitz!
The meaning of pain!
The way that I want you to die!
Slow death!
Immense decay!
Showers that cleanse you of your life!

Am I doing it right?

Merry Christmas Shattered Lens!